“I am the Teacher; a fabricated humanoid tasked with educating the first Grown generation of New Earth humans–those who will rebuild and terraform our ruined planet. I will impart to them all the knowledge I am able as they mature into caretakers of history, science, language, and Old Earth culture…”
“Wild will you shut that thing up already, I can’t think!” Mim’s voice is gruff as she hastily enters data into her wrist PAC.
Michael Wild jumps, shifting his hands away from their gentle probing across the Teacher’s shoulders where he had triggered the introductory dialogue, feeling instead at the back of the humanoid’s neck for the subtle bump he knew lay under its fabricated skin.
There, beneath Wild’s thumb at the top of its spine, he presses gently and the Teacher shivers bodily before giving a disconcertingly human stretch of its arms and settling with its chin to its chest. Not for the first time, Wild marvels at the feat of engineering prowess sat on the chair in front of him. Beginning his perusal once more, he lets his gaze move from the Teacher’s head to the tips of its brogue-covered toes.
The dark black hair was disheveled, dotted here and there with green growth, like the moss that would settle on the backs of slow-moving Old Earth creatures, Wild thinks, sloths. His gaze slides lower. Like most other humanoid fabricants, the Teacher wears clothing that, though neat, would have fallen vastly short of protecting anyone with a pulse from the harsh elements of the surface. A water-logged and moth-eaten ivory sweater, more threadbare than not, and a tailored pair of dark brown trousers better suited for warm library corridors than the damp of the bunker they occupy now contrast sharply with Wild’s own slate grey Coalition jumpsuit. Objectively, Wild thinks, the Teacher is very pleasing to look at.
Wilde jerks his head ‘round to lock eyes with Eddie. The field scientist is reaching up to wipe condensation from his too-large spectacles, “I had forgotten the Old Earth models were fit with subconscious functionality…peripheral and power draining but, fascinating.” Edward Towns was one of few aboard the Coalition 13 that had retained aspects of his ancestors’ speech patterns.
It gave the man’s voice an air of sophistication Wilde normally found soothing. Here, in the damp and dank of the bunker, it grated at Wild’s nerves and echoed eerily off the structure’s corroded walls. Wilde does his best to hide his discomfort, turning back around after adjusting his chest light to point away from his associates’ reflective lenses.
“Yes, I’d noticed. Its–I hadn’t thought it would seem so…” human.
Even now, Wild is damn near enraptured by the subtle rise and fall of the fabricant’s chest, the intermittent twitch of fingers against thighs, the subtle shift in the color of its cheeks. Fascinating, indeed. He had been told as well that the original models were designed to look quite young. Were it human, the creature sitting in front of him would appear to be no more than 30 human years-old; it held itself with an authority and poise that Wild had only seen expressed by elders and bore no resemblance to the ‘bots Wild had grown up studying on vessel 13.
The ones he knew were cold, unfeeling, sterile creatures. Built mostly from space junk and salvaged parts, they had lost any features that may have made them seem more ‘human’ in an effort to conserve energy and resources up in orbit. Nothing, Wild thinks, like the being sat before him now.
“Alright, bag that thing up boys. The Lead wants us back at the drop ship by moon-rise.” Mim, the mission’s commanding officer, interrupts Wild’s musings with her harsh timbre.
“Mim, its perfectly capable of moving on its own. If you’d just let me boot it up fully, it could walk with me. This is a sophisticated piece of technology I–”
“Wild, I know you get your rocks off on finding broke ass machinery to sweat over, but we have an objective, and this thing wasn’t part of it.” Her shoulders are squared authoritatively. “You wanna keep it, you bag it up,” she tosses Wild an expandable silverwrap, “and carry it yourself.
“Wheels up in ten. Eddie, float your specimens to the surface and ping Murphy. Don’t set foot outside until he comes around with the shuttle.” Wild is distantly aware of Eddie stacking data cubes and turning on the anti-grav patch attached to the heavy boxes, but his gaze is held sharply by Mim’s–neither blinks as Eddie’s fading footsteps sound against the metal floor of the compartment.
“Look, I know being down here is a big deal for you,” Wild’s heckles rise immediately at the implication of his being ‘fresh to the ground’ and Mim sighs impatiently, “We dropped to gather samples pinged by the new plant life censors. People are counting on us– ”
“I know, Mim. I wouldn’t risk the mission. You of all people should know that.”
Mim looks down, shoulders tense. She nods and then turns on her heel.
“Five minutes Wild.”
With an exhale, Wild grips the silverwrap tighter in his fist before shoving it into the chest pocket of his jumpsuit. He turns to the Teacher.
“Right. No way I’m carrying you on my back all the way to the dropship.”
Wild reaches around to the back of the humanoid’s neck, feeling for that subtle bump once more. He presses down firmly for three seconds until a soft beep sounds. The Teacher’s eyes flutter open, Wild marvels as its pupillary mechanisms adjust to the low levels of light coming from his chest mount.
“I am the Teacher; my position grants me–”
“Teacher, override all introductory dialogue and low-level programming.” The Teacher halts it’s script. It blinks, then looks down before one of its hands comes up to smooth the tattered fabric over its chest. “Hello, I seem to be in a state of disarray. I do apologize, it must be disconcerting. I’m Teacher.” The corners of the humanoid’s mouth lift in an imitation of a self-deprecating smile. It looks up, waiting.
Wild’s is at a loss for words, his mind halting as the object in front of him moves fluidly, naturally. Its voice is similar to Eddie’s in its lilt, Wild notices, with the scaffolding of its prerecorded speech out of the way. The engineer could swear Teacher comes across more human than most of the scientists he works with up in orbit.
“You…” Wild whispers, “are astounding.”
“A high complement.” The Teacher’s cheeks take on a ruddy hue. “Once again, I must apologize as I have no recollection of having met you before,” it turns its head to glance about the dank and grubby compartment, “nor of where we are now.” At this the Teacher’s countenance shifts, the eyebrows creased in a convincing approximation of a confused scowl.
Androids and Answers
“My name is Michael Wild. I am an engineer aboard Coalition vessel number 13. And right now, we are in a deep Earth bunker. Specifically, what we believe used to be the edification sector of a human growth center.” A new foreboding feeling takes up space in Wild’s chest as the Teacher’s frown–and it is a frown–starts to deepen.
“’Used to’…Mr. Wild,” he could swear the humanoid’s voice shook, but no, that isn’t possible. Perhaps a flaw in the fabricant voice box, “could I enquire as to what the calendar date is, please?”
Wild inhales shallowly while the humanoid’s chest stops its motion all together…like its holding its breath.
“Month 4, year 107 Post Launch.” Based on the look upon the fabricant’s face, Wild’s answer provides little immediate clarity. “Old Earth year,” Wild scratches his forehead in thought, “3412, April the 13th.” The man’s voice falls quieter as he speaks, the look of dread on the young Teacher’s face pulling his thoughts to a screeching halt. The humanoid’s gaze settles somewhere in the middle distance, eyes darting back and forth.
“Teacher?” Wild stumbles back when the being stands quickly, shaken from his panicked rumination.
“I must–” it sprints out of the compartment, shoving its way past Wild, whose body had been blocking the hatch.
What Was Carried
“Teacher!” Wild spins to follow the fabricant’s ever quickening steps. A turn left, the distance between them grows, a turn right, all Wild can see is the disappearing heel of a year-stained shoe. The Teacher is gone from sight and Wild’s is heaving, having sprinted the last few corners, as he reaches a fork in the narrow metal halls. The man pauses. One breath, two. Then the sound of metal on metal. Bang, bang, bang! Snapping his head to the left, Wild nearly falls over his own feet in his haste to chase the noise. Bang, bang!
Wild takes a final turn, the light on his chest mount bobbing with the motion and is met by the Teacher forcing its fist into a thick steel door. Already pocked with dents, the hinges give way under a final blow. With a mighty crash that makes Wild’s teeth rattle, the door falls. Beyond it, darkness.
Teacher takes a step forward into the black.
Wild’s chest light chooses that moment to crackle, then die. His lungs rattle with his next breath.
Into the Black
“Shit.” The man follows the humanoid’s path cautiously, arms cast out in front. All a sudden, a drastic change in temperature shocks Wild’s system. Cold settles on the man’s skin where the hair rises to meet the air. Reaching blindly, Wild moves forward until his hands touch wool. Underneath the weave, shoulders, both stiff and unforgiving.
“Main frame, lights up in Grower one.”
With a harsh sizzle pop, Wild is blinded. The man squeezes his eyes tight against the glare and his hands grip the fabric under them reflexively. Those two points of contact are what clue him in to the humanoid’s distress. Shoulder blades seem to quake, like breath catching. What should be immovable, metal, mechanical, instead feels fragile and immensely vulnerable. Wild’s cracks his eyes open, while they adjust slowly to the light, vague shapes take form, towering above their heads. The shoulders move away from Wild’s hands, the man’s only baring, moving further into the frigid space which, Wild thinks, now seems endless.
The Things We Have Left
The sight is horrific. Rows and rows of tanks, stacked more than one hundred high, extend into the room further than the human eye can see, each one holding a single unfinished life. The Teacher keeps walking, as if drawn forward by an insistent pull at its chest, until the structures are within reach. It stands squarely between two rows and extends its arms outward. Fabricated palms, so human in their shaking, press firmly into cold, frosted glass. Its fingers grow white with exertion as blood nanites retreat deeper, away from the pressure. The Teacher turns its head, memorizing the details of each half-formed child.
The first few bodies are haunting in their fragility; skin paper thin, leaving lungs, veins, hearts the size of Old Earth coins vulnerable to the elements. Small fingers and toes, having just made themselves known, tuck tightly into curled hands and feet. Electric blue nutritional liquid that should have acted as a supporter of life, has frozen solid, arresting the tiny bodies in time and space, halting their development. Wild follows Teacher further down the rows and notices the children getting bigger. The further they move, the more the bodies have grown, rounding, and softening into things full of static potential, making looking at their frozen forms sting that much more. This, ad infinitum. Hundreds of small beings…gone.
Teacher finally stops walking, its hands clench hard into fists.
“The children.” It whispers, head drooping between its shoulders.
What Will We Become?
Wild didn’t speak, weary of upsetting some ephemeral balance. It was well known on Coalition 13 that the Old Earth government’s growth centers had gone quiet almost a century ago. Automatic reports had no longer been received on any of the New Coalition’s 20 vessels, life signals had gone dark, and the few men left planet side to finish configuring the centers’ support systems had stopped reporting. The only flames left on Old Earth were snuffed out, the New Coalition’s hope of returning to a thriving planet along with them. But, it seemed, this fabricant had no knowledge of what happened in 3314, when the world finally went dark, or the days thereafter.
Wild watches the Teacher turn, ever so slowly, to face him.
Wild had never seen such visceral aching on the face of another. Confused, so confused, Wild takes a step away from the humanoid. That which he had been taught was merely wires, nanites, and metal bound together by human cleverness–something unfeeling–looked to be the embodiment of…a broken heart. No, not broken, torn, clean in two. The Teacher’s brow crumples and the corners of its pale, pink lips dip low, mouth falling open, desperate to release something of what was happening in the chest and mind behind it.
“The children.” The words come out choked and Wild continues to question everything he knows about old world fabricants. Suddenly, the humanoid’s knees buckle and he–it–begins to fall. A gut-wrenching crunch sounds through the holding room as metal joints meet an unforgiving floor.
To be continued…